Breastfeeding for babies in the NICU and beyond

Published by Joy Browne, PhD, PCNS, IMH-E on Sep 13, 2023

A comprehensive guide for navigating baby feeding for infants in the NICU By Joy Browne, PhD, PCNS, IMH-E Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Most expecting parents have the best intentions to breastfeed new babies. The science is clear that breast milk has the most benefits for a baby’s health even beyond the infant years. Mothers, too, reap emotional, mental and physical benefits from breastfeeding. But breastfeeding can be harder than it seems. The challenges are even greater for parents with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for any number of reasons, such as medical complications, a mother’s delayed milk production or a mother’s lack of access to the baby. That’s not to say breastfeeding babies in the NICU is impossible. With support, it certainly can be possible. And even those babies who can’t breastfeed immediately benefit from colostrum expressed at birth and skin-to-skin contact that lays a foundation for breastfeeding.

Can I breastfeed if my baby is in the NICU?

The journey of nurturing your newborn is more complex when your baby requires specialized care. One common concern is whether you can breastfeed a baby in the NICU. The answer is a resounding yes. Breastfeeding has many benefits, especially for premature or medically fragile infants. NICUs will often actively encourage and support breastfeeding, recognizing its vital role in promoting bonding, immune system development and overall growth. While it might require extra patience and support from both you and the NICU staff, remember that you are an essential part of your baby’s care team. Your commitment to breastfeeding can provide comfort, nourishment and a sense of familiarity to your baby during this critical time.

Benefits of breastfeeding in the NICU

A mother’s breastmilk is specially designed to meet their baby’s unique nutritional needs, whether they begin their lives in the NICU or typically develop and are born at term. Babies in the NICU, especially, benefit from breastmilk for their health and development. A study in shows, “…early human milk feeding is associated with a decrease in mortality and morbidity in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), decreased rates of illness and rehospitalization in the first year of life and improved neurodevelopmental outcomes.” We also know that a mother’s colostrum is a powerful protector. Many nurseries will ask mothers to express colostrum to be used for oral care and first tastes while in the NICU. Besides breastmilk’s nutritional benefits, breastfeeding also may facilitate bonding between mother and baby, reduce a mother’s stress levels, and decrease the risk of postpartum depression.

Is bottle feeding easier than breastfeeding?

It’s commonly misunderstood that breastfeeding is harder for babies than bottle feeding. Instead, studies show in many instances that breastfeeding is easier than bottles.
  • With bottle feeding, babies may work hard to extract milk from the nipple, expending extra effort to consume their required nourishment.
  • With breastfeeding, babies can grasp, latch and regulate milk flow according to their comfort and pace. They control how much they consume and how to coordinate their sucking with breathing.
Unlike some instances of hurried bottle feeding that might involve manipulating the nipple to facilitate milk intake, breastfeeding respects the baby’s innate rhythm of sucking, breathing and swallowing.

Why skin-to-skin contact matters for babies and new moms

One of the most important benefits of early breastfeeding is skin-to-skin contact. It’s an intimate and powerful connection a mother will have with a baby. Skin-to-skin contact creates physiologic organization of both the baby’s and the mother’s bodies. Following are some ways new babies and mothers benefit from skin-to-skin contact:
  • The mother’s body supports the baby’s temperature regulation. Once the fetus leaves its temperature-controlled environment of the uterus, the mother’s physiology heats up to ensure the baby is warm enough.
  • The mother’s breathing helps to regulate the baby’s breathing.
  • The mother secretes oxytocin, also called “the love hormone,” when the baby is nearby, supporting attachment as well as social and emotional development.
Even babies who aren’t breastfeeding can benefit from skin-to-skin interaction. In the NICU, younger and more critically ill babies are often transferred to their mother’s bodies so that the baby benefits from the mother’s ability to regulate their physiology. Skin-to-skin contact is now becoming a more standardized procedure for those babies who are stable enough to be off their mechanical support systems.

Continuing your breastfeeding journey beyond the NICU

Just because you know the benefits of breastfeeding doesn’t mean it’s easy. Having a baby in intensive care is extremely stressful – often coming after a stressful pregnancy, labor or delivery. The stress of these circumstances could interfere with successful breastfeeding, so mothers who can’t breastfeed should never feel guilty. Even with the best intentions, there are variables new mothers have to manage to be successful at breastfeeding. All mothers – especially those with babies in the NICU – need more support for breastfeeding from policies, NICU resources and community support. Following are some breastfeeding resources available:
  • Hospitals usually have lactation consultants on staff for in-patient support and outpatient appointments
  • LaLeche League operates in most communities.
  • The Affordable Care Act in 2011 made coverage of lactation consulting a federal requirement for mothers from the prenatal period through weaning. This includes the cost of breast pumps. If your health plan fails to provide coverage, the National Women’s Law Center has a script to use when calling a health plan.
  • SimpliFed provides a virtual baby feeding and breastfeeding support service, fully covered by health plans in all 50 states.

Continuing breastfeeding at home after discharge from the NICU

Babies in the NICU typically eat well at discharge but may have eating difficulties around two to four months. This is a period where babies’ brains are reorganizing, which leads to a change in the way they eat. It’s essential that babies get the most positive feeding experiences at this stage. Researchers have found that by three months, babies’ brains are about 65 percent the size they’ll be in adulthood, making the period around and right after a time of huge brain growth and organization of neurons. Any unused neurons are shed. This is why early experiences impact brain organization, and lay the foundation for all behavior – including eating. Professionals who support families after NICU discharge need more information about attending to the eating needs of these babies and their development. Educational programs about the science behind supporting babies’ transitions into their homes are essential for early intervention providers. By understanding the benefits of breastfeeding in the NICU and beyond, parents can make informed choices that support their baby’s health journey. It’s up to everyone who supports families with new babies to make caring for them easier.
Joy Browne, PhD teaches multi-disciplines in areas of development from newborn to very young infancy, especially for babies who start their lives in intensive care. Her research has helped to develop standards of evidence-based care for infant and family centered developmental care.